Piper Kerman is a Smith College graduate who went to prison in Danbury, Connecticut in 2004 for drug smuggling. Kerman spent 13 months behind bars and, while there, drew the inspiration for her 2010 book Orange is the New Black: My Year in a Women's Prison. That book was turned into the successful Netflix series.
Piper Kerman spoke with Boston Public Radio hosts Jim Braude and Margery Eagan about her transformation from convicted drug smuggler to famous author and prison reform advocate.
Kerman's responses are edited where noted [...], and questions are paraphrased.
It's not every day you hear about a Smith College grad going to prison.
It is unusual for Smithies to end up on the wrong side of the wall, as opposed to working as prosecutors. [...] The fact that I was prosecuted and ultimately [sentenced] to prison. [...] We know that our criminal justice system here in Mass. doesn't [prosecute] everyone equally.
The understanding is that there are a lot of women in prison these days.
The women's population in this country has been the fastest-growing population for decades, and that is mostly due to drug policy. [Most] offenses tend to be drug offenses or property crimes.
Mandatory minimum sentences play into this too, right?
'I was sent to prison for a nonviolent drug offense. Just like millions and millions of people. We really need to do something differently.'
Mandatory minimums are the reason I was sent to prison. I was sent to prison for a nonviolent drug offense. Just like millions and millions [of people]. [...] Those policies, those mandatory minimums have failed to address substance abuse or addiction. So, if that's what we want then we really need to do something differently.
And yet, there are still people who think mandatory minimums work.
Prosecutors. Literally nobody else within the system thinks they're a useful tool.
And you say this is particularly damaging to women.
There is incredible pressure on defendants to plead. It's devastating. We know the majority of women in prison are moms, most of those are moms of minor children. [...] When we send a mom to prison, her kids are five times more likely to end up in foster care.
And you were convicted of drug smuggling.
I was 22 years old. So many people that do get involved in transgressive activities or crime are really young. [...] At the end of the day I made my own choices.
What was the most important thing you learned being in prison?
If [you] spent even a little bit of time in prison or jail, [you'd see] how incredibly pointless long sentences are.
How humane is solitary confinement, in your estimation?
'I always say the most effective prisons are the ones with the most permeable walls.'
I always say the most effective prisons are the ones with the most permeable walls. [Solitary confinement is] the harshest penalty we have in this country, other than death.
Will we see big changes in imprisonment in the US in the next five or ten years?
There has been an increased drive towards more reform over the past ten years, and I think that has been very much driven by fiscal [considerations] when the economy went sideways. [...] Most states spend more on prisons than they do on public higher education.